World Cup opener

I always get a few excited/nervous butterflies in my stomach before the first Dutch races of the season, the three Drenthe races, held around the towns of Dwingeloo and Hoogeveen in the north of the Netherlands.

While Molecaten Drentse 8, raced on Thursday, and Novilon Eurocup, raced on Sunday, are big deals to win, it’s Ronde van Drenthe, the World Cup squashed in the middle, that everyone is interested in. It’s at Ronde van Drenthe that the big girls come out to play and nothing is left in reserve.

World Cups to women’s cycling are what the Monuments are to the men’s peloton. Nine one-day races scattered throughout the season, they carry the most UCI points to win, a jersey for the overall leader, and major media exposure (this year all nine races will be broadcast live on various stations across Europe).

Their importance in women’s cycling is challenged only by the major stage races like the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships.

Ronde van Drenthe is as close as women’s cycling gets to Paris-Roubaix. It’s one of the longest races on the women’s calendar at 146km and it’s known for its brutal cobblestone sections — which are really more like sand or grass tracks with occasional stones thrown down for good measure — which usually rip the race apart.

Ronde van Drenthe is also famous for the VAMberg, a 500-metre man-made hill with a max gradient of 23%. Throw in super-narrow roads and crosswinds reaching 50km/h and you have a real Dutch classic race on your hands.

And that’s exactly what we got on Saturday.

Race recon

Sitting in the team meeting on Friday night my Hitec Products teammates and I went through the race bible like we were studying for our final exams. Weather app in hand we studied the race map, matching the kilometres with wind direction, turns, and cobble sections and hoped that we could all be there when it mattered.

In these sorts of races knowing when a left-hand corner is or when the road narrows from five-metres to one-metre can make or break your race.

Our director had gone out the day before to ‘recon’ the cobbled sections which came at 57, 64 and 77 kilometres and he relayed the information to us in detail.

“One kilometre before the first cobbled section is a roundabout which you go left at, then the road is wide before a 90-degree right-hand turn on to the cobbles.”

“On the left-hand side as you enter the cobbles there is a hole so try to be on the right. You want to ride in the middle of the cobbles, that’s the smoothest line.” As he talked my five teammates and I looked over the race map like we were looking for hidden treasure.

Boels Rental Worldcup Drenthe 2014

I had heard it before. It was my third time racing the World Cup and the course has changed very little over the years. Whether it was with Specialized Lululemon or Hitec Products every meeting is the same; make sure you’re at the front before the right-hand turn on to the cobbles. The reality is that in Dutch racing there is no secret formula; it is as simple as my Dad used to say when I was a junior — “stay at the front”.

So as the peloton raced towards that right-hand corner on Saturday and I found myself in 50th position you can imagine the thoughts going through my head. “I’m too far back. My race is over.”

Fighting for position

Racing for that right-hand corner was much like racing to be the first through the doors of David Jones on Boxing Day. Everyone wants to be first, and most are willing to push, stab, or trample to make it happen.

Fortunately, I found my teammate Elisa Longo Borghini and somehow we managed to dance over the four kilometre cobbled section. It was like picking our way through a minefield — dodging riders who couldn’t quite find the right grinding:gear:pedalling ratio we managed to move ourselves up into the top ten.

As we turned off the first cobbled section back on to paved roads we allowed ourselves to breath a sigh of relief (phew, no punctures) and reassess the situation knowing we had just over five kilometres before the next cobbled section.

Chloe Hosking (in second wheel) takes on the cobbles.

Chloe Hosking (in second wheel) takes on the cobbles.

Looking behind me I was surprised the peloton hadn’t shattered more; in previous years only an elite group of 15 or so usually made it over the first cobbled section together. This year, however, there was still a group of 50 or 60 riders. As we turned on to the second cobbled section Elisa and I were well positioned, sitting comfortably in the top ten with riders like Lizzie Armitstead & Ellen van Dijk (Boels Dolmans), and Trixi Worrack & Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized Lululemon).

But something just didn’t seem right — I couldn’t understand why the pace wasn’t being pushed on the cobbles that could usually shred the field. It was like the Dutch teams who usually try to rip your legs off on the cobblestones were instead pacing themselves. Boels Dolmans, Rabobank Liv and Giant Shimano all had girls up front but none of them were driving it.

Deciding to take things into our own hands I rode up to Elisa and said “You can go.” She didn’t hold back. Her turn of pace immediately started to put pressure on the group.

A kilometre later we turned off the cobbles and straight into a crosswind and I thought, “this is perfect”. Specialized Lululmeon started riding an echelon and Elisa and I jumped in. Her turn of pace on the cobbles had shattered the peloton but there was still more than 70km to race. In the end, the echelon was shortlived and the race (or most of it) came back together.

Then it was like things went blank.

“Throw it in the gutter!”

I don’t really remember what happened over the next 30km except Rabobank tried to launch a few girls up the road without luck. I managed to emerge from my black haze just in time to see Giant Shimano, Boels Dolmans, and Rabobank forming an echelon and putting the rest of the field in the gutter.

It was choas … or a perfectly orchestrated tactical move depending on which side of the fence you were on. Now it started to make sense why the big Dutch teams hadn’t tried to rip our legs off over the cobbles — they were waiting for the crosswinds.

All of a sudden the peloton went from seven riders wide to one long strung-out line in the gutter as girls scrambled to make the front echelon.

Armitstead, van Dijk, Worrack, Annemiek van Vleuten (Rabobank-Liv), and Kirsten Wild (Giant Shimano) were all at the front driving the echelon. For me and other race favourites like Italian double World Champion Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda), Orica-AIS’s main rider Emma Johansson and American sprinter Shelly Olds (Ale Cipollini) it was crunch time — we had all missed the front group and if we didn’t act quickly we knew our race was over.

It was panic stations for the next seven kilometres. This was heightened by the fact that the first ascent of the Dutch mountain, the VAMberg, was only 10km away. Giorgia Bronzini, Elisa and I worked hard to drag the front group back and we managed to latch on to the back less than a kilometre before the base of VAMberg.

The business end

“Straight to the front!” I yelled to Elisa as we rode on to van Dijk’s wheel and that’s what we did. Hitting the bottom on the climb Anna van der Breggen (Rabobank-Liv) attacked the climb like her teammate Marianne Vos did the year before and got a slight gap which she built upon on the steep, windy descent.

What happened next was one of the best tactical moves I have seen — her teammate, Iris Slappendel, snuck off the front and joined her. It was like it happened in slow motion; as the front riders looked to their left Iris went on the right and all of a sudden there were two Rabobank riders off the front.

Their gap started growing immediately and you could feel the panic in other teams. It was like Boels Dolmans, Giant Shimano and Specialized Lululemon didn’t want to be the first to pull the trigger and commit to the chase.

My team, Hitec Products, had three at the front (Audrey Cordon, Elisa and I) and I quickly made the decision to take a gamble. Riding up to Elisa I said, “You and Audrey don’t chase. We wait for Giant Shimano to do it.”

Amy Pieters leads Anna van der Breggen and her teammate Kirsten Wild on the VAMberg on her way to winning the best climber's jersey.

Amy Pieters leads Anna van der Breggen and her teammate Kirsten Wild on the VAMberg on her way to winning the best climber’s jersey.

If there is a rivalry in women’s cycling that could be compared to the rivalry we used to see in the men’s peloton between HTC-Highroad and Garmin it is between Giant-Shimano and Rabobank-Liv. Sometimes you need hedge your bets on that.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. For the second time that day I seemed to have a brain freeze. Sitting too far back in the chase group of about 20 I looked up just in time to see Chantel Blaak of Specialized Lululemon driving it on the front and seven others riding away with her with just under 20km left to race. They were gone and no matter how hard Elisa and I chased there was no bringing them back this time.

The final ascent of the VAMberg came 130km into the race, just 16km from the finish. While Iris and Anna had been working hard together Anna is known as one of the best climbers in the peloton – there’s a reason Rabobank signed her this year to boost their climbing stocks – and, well, Iris isn’t.

With the elite chase group of eight riding hard behind the pair, Anna had no choice but to leave her breakaway companion and teammate behind. Attacking the 500-metre climb Anna went over the top of the VAMberg solo, but she didn’t stay that way for long.

The winning move

Lizzie Armitstead — who had already shown good form by finishing third in the opening European race of the season, Omloop het Niuewsblad, and winning Omloop van het Hageland last weekend — launched herself up and over the VAMberg like a stone being fired from a slingshot. My teammate who was watching at home recounted her attack in awe: “She just jumped, Johansson was on her wheel and just couldn’t even follow. I don’t even think Vos could have done that.”

That’s a pretty big call — anyone who saw Vos attack in Florence at the World Championships last year knows how powerful she can be. Elisa, who was on Armitstead’s wheel last weekend when she attacked in Hageland said the same thing: “It’s like she sprinted uphill, but then she stopped, look behind, and then sprinted again.”

Lizzie quickly bridged up to Anna and the two rode together to the line. In the end, no matter how hard Anna tried to dislodge Lizzie she couldn’t get rid of the Brit and Lizzie took a convincing win over the young Dutch rider. Shelly Olds lead the chase group home for third.

The winning duo of Lizzie Armitstead and Anna van der Breggen.

The winning duo of Lizzie Armitstead and Anna van der Breggen.

Behind all this action, Elisa and I had continued to work on the front but it was fruitless. In the final kilometres we made the quick decision to try and get Elisa as many points for the overall World Cup series as possible. So, with cramping legs the sprinter tried to lead out the hill climber. I’m sure people were wondering what on earth we were doing but in a nine-race series every position you fight for can make a difference at the end.

Elisa finished 16th and I finished 20th. It wasn’t the result we had hoped for. I finished fourth last year and had hoped to be on the podium in 2014. When your teammates do everything to help you but you leave your head back in the hotel you only have yourself to blame and that was the situation I found myself in on Saturday. It was positioning that let me down and, in the end, cost me that podium place I had been training so hard for.

The year ahead

From here on out there is no more hiding. Some riders like to play a little bit of poker in the early season races but everyone laid their cards out on Saturday and Lizzie and her team, Boels Dolmans, came up trumps.

If one thing can be learnt from Saturday’s race it’s this: Armitstead is on a mission in 2014. She may have already shown her pedigree when she won silver at the London Olympics but she is a different rider in 2014. She seems more focused and more motivated than ever. Watch out for her at the Commonwealth Games in August and the World Championships in September.

What’s exciting is the teams seem a lot more evenly matched than in previous years. Even though when push came to shove my team missed out on the top ten we still had three in the top 21, Rabobank had five, Giant Shimano four, Specialized Lululemon three, and Boels Dolmans two. To me, it’s a promising sign for more exciting and aggressive racing in 2014.

World Cup classification leaders after the first race, from left to right: Amy Pieters (best climber), Iris Slappendel (best sprinter), Lizzie Armitstead (overall leader) and Thalita De Jong (best young rider).

World Cup classification leaders after the first race, from left to right: Amy Pieters (best climber), Iris Slappendel (best sprinter), Lizzie Armitstead (overall leader) and Thalita De Jong (best young rider).

What was surprising was seeing Johansson isolated at the front of the race. Her Orica-AIS teammates finished well down the field which is unusual — they’re usually a force at the front of the peloton.

I’m sure Orica-AIS will be back with a vengeance at the next World Cup of the season, Trofeo Alfredo Binda in two weeks time. It’s a course they’ve done well on before (Emma finished second last year behind my teammate Elisa) and it is held in Cittiglio, Italy, a stone’s throw from the AIS’s European base.

For now, I’m heading back to my European training base in Girona, Spain for some recovery before I start to build again for the first ever women’s Tour of Britain in May.

You can read more of Chloe’s writing at her great blog here. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Click here for full results from the 2014 Ronde van Drenthe. Ronde van Drenthe was the first of nine races in the 2014 UCI Women’s Road World Cup. The next race, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio, will be held on Sunday March 30.